Heavy ideas from the world of jazz…#1

It has been an quite unbelieveable week for many in ways which would be hard to explain to those not truly acquainted with certain of the details of my life at present. This post is ‘out of sync’ with what I had planned to post this week – but failed to post due to quite unrelenting pressures – and it also makes its own point about how, if you fail to do what you plan to do at the time you were supposed to do it – chances are it will never happen.

So, when people do get a chance to do later what they were supposed to do earlier – the mere fact that they lived long enough to redeem the time is something which no-one has any right to take for granted, and the Bible-believing Christian has less excuse than pretty much anyone else!

Even in the writing of this post my thoughts have begun to fire in all sorts of directions way beyond the specifics of this post. The world is too big – the universe is too big – God is absolutely beyond – and so, when I consider how many of us in the Church have reduced God to a deity of manageable proportions (as if that were possible), I am just amazed. But then, I too was guilty of that for a long time, and scarily – for this post, and for anyone who believes me who is also a conservative Adventist – when I look back, I see that jazz has played a part in connecting me to something greater than myself – i.e. the reality of God – in ways that the archetypal frameworks of conservative Christianity could ever have facilitated. We need religion – but religion as form without the actual presence of the Spirit of God in our lives is pointless on every level.

Church music is one of the biggest white elephants we have. We say that God is worthy of all the praise, but then our conceptual framework for sacred music is less rigorous and coherent than much of best of truly worthwhile secular music. This first post in the series on ‘heavy ideas from the world of jazz’ will now draw attention to the work of a US trumpeter called Christian Scott.

From the biog on his website, we read:

“When trumpeter Christian Scott was growing up in New Orleans in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, his grandfather gave him and his brother Kiel extra reading assignments each week as a supplement to their assigned schoolwork. If the young students failed to finish their books within the week, their grandfather would say, “Yesterday you said tomorrow…” It was the older man’s way of emphasizing the importance of recognizing the work at hand, and making the most of the available time to complete it.

In the end, the two brothers graduated at the top of their high school class at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Armed with a full scholarship, Christian headed north to Berklee College of Music, where he earned two degrees in two years and eventually launched a music career that has positioned him as one of the great innovators of his generation. But along the way, Scott has learned that there’s still much work to be done – not just within the jazz idiom, but also in the larger world in which jazz exists. Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, his March 30, 2010, release on Concord Jazz, reflects the legacy of some of his musical heroes of the ‘60s, and at the same time wields the music as a tool to address some of the very important issues of contemporary culture.

“I’ve never worked on an album as hard as I’ve worked on this one,” says Scott, who did the session work in April 2009 at Van Gelder Recording Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Scott co-produced with Chris Dunn, and veteran jazz engineer Rudy Van Gelder engineered the album. “I wanted to create a musical backdrop that referenced everything I liked about the music from the ‘60s – Miles Davis’ second quintet, Coltrane’s quartet, Mingus’ band – coupled with music made by people like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix. The music from that era just had more depth, whether it was jazz or rock or folk or whatever. The political and social climate at the time was much heavier, and there were a few musicians who weren’t afraid to reference that climate in their work. The ones who did that – and at the same time captivated people in a way that referenced their own humanity – were the ones who ended up lasting the longest.”

Now for me, as a person who believes in the Bible, which exhorts us to “[redeem] the time, because the days are evil,” this young man’s application of his grandfather’s advice has been a real shot in the arm. If a secular artist can recognise that life is not an asset to fritter away, why is it that (relatively speaking) so few Christians are as serious as they ought to be about the fact that we will one day have to answer to God for how they used their time on Earth – along with everyone else? Why is it that as a life-long church attendee, I have so few Christian friends whose use of time I really respect? Do those around me respect how I use my time? This is serious stuff!

This album Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (like his earlier release Anthem) takes aim at certain injustices persistent in society… Again, from the biog:

“Scott addresses the issues head on, regardless of how uncomfortable the subject matter may be. He opens the set with “K.K.P.D.,” a track full of dark harmonies and tense, competing polyrhythms. The title stands for “Ku Klux Police Department,” a reference to what Scott calls the “phenomenally dark and evil” attitude by the local police toward African American citizens of New Orleans when he was growing up – and the similar dynamic that persists there and in other cities to this day. “If you’re black, and you get caught in the wrong place on the wrong night, they may do some Klan stuff to you,” he says. “That’s always the thought in the back of your mind.”

Further in, “Angola, LA & The 13th Amendment” is fueled by Scott’s alternately melancholy and soaring trumpet lines and Williams’ crashing drums, and punctuated by Stevens’ plaintive guitar. The song equates certain aspects of the prison system with slavery. “You go to places like Angola, and you see these convicts doing very daunting manual labor,” says Scott. “Of course, if you’ve been convicted of a crime and you’re guilty, then you should be punished. And you should be rehabilitated. But I know personally that there are people there who are not guilty, and for that to be their plight shames me as an American.”

The introspective “The Last Broken Heart” was inspired by the debate over gay marriage. “It’s a very challenging song to play, but the small dissonances within the song make it very captivating,” says Scott. “What could be more beautiful than two people deciding to love each other? It’s better than two people deciding to hate each other, but somehow that’s more acceptable.”

Pitting a melodic trumpet line against a tense rhythmic undercurrent, “The American’t” is a reflection on the negativity that persists in the aftermath of the history-making presidential election of 2008. “There was so much hope and positivity, but at the same time, there were people who insisted on taking a really dark view of the events,” says Scott. “The song is about how people can harbor some very negative aspirations for our country, all under the guise of patriotism.”

The closer, “The Roe Effect,” employs a bit of musical sleight-of-hand to pose a hypothesis about abortion. “I had written this melody that was really captivating,” says Scott. “Then we decided to play it backwards. It turned out to be equally as beautiful – if not more beautiful – than the original melody.” The song is constructed around a thought-provoking question: what happens over the next few generations as parents who oppose abortion raise their children with similar values, and then those children grow up and vote, while adults who choose the abortion option raise no voters at all? “By playing the song backwards in the second half,” says Scott, “we illuminate how the erasing of the process is more beautiful than the creation of it.”

Scott freely admits that the subject matter within Yesterday You Said Tomorrow is anything but lighthearted. But like his grandfather, he has little patience for falling behind on the important work at hand that can’t wait. “There’s no better time than right now to fix all of the problems and issues that we face as individuals and as a society,” he says. “The problems that some of the musicians of the ‘60s addressed still exist. They may look a little different, but they’re still around. The intent of the album was to make a document that illuminated that fact, and illuminated the means to change the dynamics and solve the problems.”

So let’s take a good look at this. Here’s a jazz musician who has understood that there is work to do for the greater good of society, and that even as a jazz artist, there is a responsibility to society at large. This is the very reason why I am writing this post – for those both in the Church and not in the Church who do not understand that jazz is far more than a  dance-music genre that does nothing more than entertain people. Jazz is more than most will ever understand. But for those who want to understand, it will always present itself for inspection. It is a serious a medium to communicate ideas as any other medium that we have known in human history. One British reviewer has described this record as being “urgent and politically eloquent…”

So, if jazz can be politically eloquent, can it also be socially and culturally eloquent? We know the answer is ‘yes.’ There are many examples. But, says the conservative Christian – how can a SECULAR artform be spiritually eloquent in any biblically-Christian sense of the word? That is surely a bridge too far!

I would say that in order for that argument to have any real credibility, you have to know enough about music, jazz itself and Biblical Christianity to show how not only jazz, but ANY music artform can be used to communicate ideas beyond the artform itself. And without doubt we will return to these questions in this blog (if God continues to grant life and breath).

But let us move forward; and now we get to the nitty-gritty: (at least) two of the songs on this album are based on ideological positions which as a Bible-believing jazz artist I have to question. The first one I’ll deal with is “The Roe Effect.” Look at the language Scott uses to define his position: “By playing the song backwards in the second half, we illuminate how the erasing of the process is more beautiful than the creation of it.”

What is the process Scott is talking about here? To my mind, the context suggests very strongly that Scott is talking about the creation of human life! Now, man is made in the image of God – the imago Dei – and God, as the author of all life clearly has a huge regard for human life. Would the Son of God have come to us through the incarnation and gone to Calvary if the erasing of the process of human life was really more beautiful than the creation of it?

You are of course free to go google the website, read the original posting for yourself and see if I have taken his words out of context:

http://christianscott.tv/bio/

It is hard to believe that any serious and thinking person would actually argue that the erasing of the process of the creation of life is more beautiful than the creation of it. So until I have had a chance to hear from Mr. Scott himself on this subject, I cannot say any more about my perception of his position on the subject of abortion. But the question in and of itself is one which we need to look at!

For those of you who would like to keep reading, the second track concept I wish to question (in this post) is The Last Broken Heart. Scott: “What could be more beautiful than two people deciding to love each other? It’s better than two people deciding to hate each other, but somehow that’s more acceptable.”

Is this a fair and accurate statement in and of itself? Does it display a coherent awareness of the extent of the position/s held on human life and interpersonal relationships by those who oppose gay marriage as a principle? Just because a person opposes gay marriage – does that mean that they think it more acceptable by definition that people should hate each other?

For a person who seems to have a stronger academic background than many others, I would have expected a better standard of critical thinking from Mr. Scott. Exactly how has this sort of logic has survived to the point where it can be posted on a website of a genuinely serious and talented artist?

But instead of spending more time pulling these positions apart, I want to close this post with a statement and a charge. In 48 hours, I will take my first-ever rehearsal with my own chamber orchestra on sacred music from the baroque era. This music would be deemed as acceptable by most Christians, and the conservatives would love it. But jazz is not just for secular artists like Christian Scott. Jazz is bigger than the artists. And if this music can be a medium for messages like the ones that Scott is sending out, then can a Bible-believing Christian use jazz to send a different message?

I believe – and know – that the answer is yes. And as this series continues, I hope it will become clearer to at some readers how it can be the case that a conservative Seventh-Day Adventist who has been called to theological ministries can also have a calling as a jazz musician – and use that medium to send a message encapsulating the truth!

There may be those who think that jazz has NO place in Christian witness. That is absolutely their prerogative. But the charge I promised to deliver is this: if you judge me, then you must know that you are doing what you can to advance the Kingdom in whatever ways your gifts and talents give you the scope, and I wish you well. Those of you who can’t make sense of what this post has been addressing, but who are not at all negative in principle to what I am saying: don’t worry as much about understanding all these ideas as you do about finding your own niche in sharing your faith!

And for those of you who are following what I am saying and are genuinely supportive – I thank you, but I also encourage you to see how you can turn even more of what you do and who you are into a witness for saving faith!

God bless you – and thank you for getting to the end of my longest post to date…!!!

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